Mick Hickey and Shaun McIntyre from Beyond Bulding Energy, fitting solar panels to homes in Mullumbimby.
Mick Hickey and Shaun McIntyre from Beyond Bulding Energy, fitting solar panels to homes in Mullumbimby. Brenden Allen

People are powering up to solar

THE biggest roll-out of solar power systems in Australia's history began in Mullumbimby this week.

Byron Bay-based company Beyond Building Energy has been flooded with orders since introducing its 'solar neighbourhoods' program last year. It works by getting a minimum of 50 houses within an area to sign up to solar, allowing the company to achieve much greater economies of scale and reduce delivery and installation costs.

Australia currently has about 4000 houses installed with grid interactive solar systems. Beyond Building Energy has over 2000 houses signed up to its program, mostly around the North Coast, but also in Melbourne and some other parts of Australia.

“We are able to buy container loads, rather than boxes of solar panels – the same with inverters,” said Mark Hickey, the company's technical and installation manager.

“The business model is based on high turnover and small margins. Traditionally installers had low installation rates and high margins, and might only do one a week. But we're doing 10 houses a week per team.”

Taking advantage of the Federal Government's $8000 rebate for solar power, the company has an introductory rate of $500 per installation for a 1000-watt system. The price rose to $895 in February, but by way of comparison, other solar installers are offering similar systems for around $4700.

More than 100 houses in Mullumbimby have signed up to the program, with the installation of another 100 due to start in Federal soon. From there the company has solar neighbourhoods lined up in Goonengerry/Rosebank, Bangalow, Lennox Head, Main Arm/The Pocket, Ocean Shores, Tyagarah/Myocum and Wilsons Creek.

“We're scaling up operations as we speak. We're recruiting and training more teams,” Mr Hickey said.

He said the grid interactive system was the equivalent of 'spinning your electricity metre backwards'.

“We actually use digital metres which record the input and output of energy. Your power company then pays you at the same rate as the electricity you use,” he said.

Mr Hickey estimated the average house would save about one tonne of greenhouse gas emissions and $220 a year in electricity costs.

“It means that the payback period is reasonable. For the people who got in under the $500 offer it's just over two years to pay for itself; and even at $895 it is only four years.”

Mr Hickey said his company hadn't been as badly hit by the Federal Government's recent decision to means test the solar rebate because they had targeted people on lower incomes.

“After the budget we lost some business, but some parts of the industry lost up to 80 per cent of their customers. People were prepared to pay up to $5000, but if it is means tested and they're not eligible for the rebate then they can't afford it,” he said.

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